The guy deserved better.
The Browns re-signed RB Jamal Lewis on Thursday but you just may have missed it. Browns GM Phil Savage announced the signing at about the same time as the Cavs pulled off a 10-player trade with Chicago and Seattle that breathed some life into their listless roster and dominated the headlines.
So instead of being feted as a shrewd move and a deserving contract for a guy who gave the Browns running game an identity and a toughness not seen here since Ernest Byner and Kevin Mack were toting the rock (no pun intended Mack fans), Lewis’s signing was relegated to afterthought status on the nightly news and in the papers the following day.
Lewis and the Browns reportedly agreed to a 3-year deal to keep the running back in Cleveland for what is likely the remainder of his career. Financial terms were not disclosed but the rumors are the deal was for approximately $17m and that the 3rd year was an option year.
Lewis rushed for over 1,300 yards and 9TDs for the Browns in 2007 and he added another 248 yards and 2 TDs on 30 receptions. The numbers were all that Browns fans could have hoped for when Lewis signed here last year after spending 7 years in Baltimore. But more so than the numbers, Lewis became a leader and a vital cog in a potent Browns offense. His bruising and punishing style was appreciated by Browns fans and by his teammates, if not by defenders who often required help to get the 28-yr old running back on the ground.
Lewis rushed for over 100 yards five times in the 2007 season, including a season high 216 yards on the ground in the Browns watershed game against Cincinnati in week #2. Only Hall of Fame RB Jim Brown rushed for more yards in a season for the Browns than Lewis gained in 2007.
Not bad for a guy many thought was finished after he left the Ravens.
The question now becomes one of motivation for JLew. To paraphrase Savage, “ A hungry Jamal is an effective Jamal.” But Lewis seems to have come to the realization that working hard is what’s rejuvenated his career.
Coaches, teammates and front office personnel all agree that Lewis has matured into the veteran presence the Browns were desperate for on the offensive side of the ball. He’s become a role model for younger running backs Jason Wright, Jerome Harrison and Lawrence Vickers who all gush about his work ethic and training regimen.
All of that is just fine. But what Browns fans enjoy is that Lewis, while losing some of that breakaway speed, repeatedly got the job done on short yardage and goal line situations. No more fullback option passes or end arounds when a yard was needed or the ball was sitting inside the opponent’s 5-yd line. Lewis took the ball in almost all of those situations and consistently got the yardage that good backs get to pick up first downs or to cash in a drive for six points instead of settling for three.
As for the speed, Lewis still showed flashes of fast. He ran away from Cincinnati defenders time and again in his 216-yd game. But what can’t be overlooked in talking about his speed is his power. The sprinters and the scatbacks are terrific if they have a seam or get a lane. Lewis didn’t need a lane. He turned 1 yd gains or losses into 8-yd runs and he turned some 8-yd runs into 15 yards by punishing would be tacklers.
To be fair, Lewis owes a good bit of his 17 million dollar windfall to a perfect storm of occurrences in 2007. Not only did he come in with a chip on his shoulder and a desire to resurrect his career while playing for a big payday, but he also came in just as the Browns signed G Eric Steinbach and drafted left tackle Joe Thomas. He also greatly benefited (as all of us surely did) from the Browns decision to deal starting QB Charlie Frye after the opening kickoff in week one in favor of Derek Anderson. Anderson’s shortcomings are well documented, but he clearly had the ability to make some throws and keep a defense from lining up eight in the box to key on JLew.
In all likelihood, Lewis doesn’t approach the 1,000 yard mark without Steinbach and Thomas and he’s probably on IR from the beating he’d have taken had Frye kept the QB job. But the point is those things did happen and Jamal Lewis took serious advantage of the opportunities he walked into and it was his own hard work that helped pave the way.
Losing Lewis would have been a severe blow for the offense. The Browns simply have no one on their roster with his experience and his overall ability. Harrison and Wright are change of pace backs and aren’t suited to hammer an opponent into submission like Lewis is. Vickers, despite his development, is still a blocking back first and foremost. For all the talk about Lewis’s lack of hands in the passing game he caught 30 balls this past season. That’s more than any other back on the club and more than Wright and Harrison combined. Having Lewis contribute in the passing game is key because of the flexibility it gives the Browns in play calling and the disguise of those plays.
Hopefully in 2008 Lewis continue to play at a high level and stays healthy. But the Browns still need to start looking for and grooming his replacement starting with this draft. Lewis’s big year and subsequent extension affords the Browns the opportunity to find his ultimate replacement in the later rounds while using those early picks not on a RB but on the defensive players this team sorely needs. That’s value that’s above and beyond the 1500 yards from scrimmage and 11 TDs.